With a title like The Royal Game, you might expect this novel to be about a king or a queen; in fact, it’s the story of the Pastons, who rose from humble origins to become members of the aristocracy and one of Norfolk’s most influential families during the 15th century. Their collection of personal letters, known as the Paston Letters, is the largest archive of private correspondence surviving from the period and tells us a lot about life in England at that time.
The Pastons’ story is retold by Anne O’Brien in fictional form, using the letters as a guide. She has chosen to focus on three characters in particular: Margaret Mautby Paston, wife of John Paston, who becomes head of the family after the death of his father; John’s sister Elizabeth (known as Eliza); and Anne Haute, a cousin of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. There are chapters written from the perspectives of each of these women, mainly Margaret and Eliza at first, with Anne only introduced halfway through and becoming more prominent towards the end of the book.
During the period covered in the novel, the Wars of the Roses are playing out in the background as the House of Lancaster and the House of York fight for control of England’s throne. The Pastons are an ambitious family who see the changing political situation in terms of what it will mean for them and how they can turn things to their own advantage in order to increase their wealth and power. This means that much of the story is concerned with the gaining and losing of properties and land, disputes over wills and controversies surrounding inheritances. In particular, estates left to John Paston by his patron Sir John Fastolf (the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff), become the subject of a long legal battle.
I liked this book much more than Anne O’Brien’s previous one, The Queen’s Rival, partly because this one is written in a more straightforward format – although with the alternating narrators I mentioned above. I felt that the narrative voices of Margaret and Eliza were very similar and sometimes I had to remind myself which one I was reading about, but this was less of a problem as I got further into the book. Margaret is portrayed as a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman working alongside her husband to hold on to the family property, while Eliza is being badly treated by her mother and desperately hoping for marriage as a way of escape. Eventually, both women find themselves with the same focus in life: to protect their children’s titles and inheritances from jealous rivals who are trying to claim them for themselves. Our third narrator, Anne Haute, who is depicted as another young woman with ambition and hopes of an advantageous marriage, seems unconnected to the other two at first, but quickly becomes drawn into the Pastons’ world.
The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite historical periods to read about and it made a nice change to move away from the usual novels set at the royal court or on the battlefields and see what was going on elsewhere in the country at that time. I enjoyed this book but it’s very long and detailed and I was surprised when I reached a cliffhanger ending and discovered that there’s going to be a sequel. I will look out for it, but while I wait maybe this would be a good time to read my copy of Blood & Roses, Helen Castor’s non-fiction book about the Paston family.
Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 47/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.